Giv‘at Oger is located on the northeastern fringes of the Be’er Sheva‘ valley, at the junction with the southern slopes of the Hebron hills. The excavation (Figs. 2, 3), conducted at the top of the hill, uncovered remains from the Byzantine (Strata IIIb, IIIa), Early Islamic (Stratum II), and Mamluk and Ottoman periods (Stratum I). In the Byzantine stratum remains of a courtyard house, a winepress, three caves, a cistern, and an agricultural terrace wall were uncovered. During the Early Islamic period, changes were carried out in the courtyard house. The caves were reused as dwelling caves in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. To the northeast of the courtyard house, a cemetery (not excavated) was documented probably dating to the end of the Ottoman period.
The Hebrew name Giv‘at Oger derives from the Arabic name of the site Khirbat ‘Ajarima. The survey map of Nahal Yattir, southeast of Giv‘at Oger, documented 90 Byzantine sites and only 13 Early Islamic sites (Govrin 2013). Based on the survey findings, Y. Govrin concluded that settlement in the Be’er Sheva Valley reached its peak in the Byzantine period, after which the settlements were abandoned in a slow, continuous process of decline.
Stratum IIIb (Byzantine period—fifth–seventh centuries CE)
At the top of the hill, a square room was uncovered (6.3 × 6.3 m; Figs. 3:a; 4) whose walls were built of ashlars, some with tooled edges, and preserved to a height of two courses. The room’s walls were wide and solid, and it may have been used as a fortified tower. An entrance set in the eastern wall retained a threshold stone, a socket, and two steps that led into the room.
Stratum IIIa (Byzantine period—fifth–seventh centuries CE)
Courtyard House (21 × 29 m; Figs. 3:b, 5). A building with three wings and a tower built around a central courtyard was uncovered. The building was constructed on a northeast-southwest alignment corresponding to the slope of the hillside. Prior to the building’s construction, the surface was leveled by quarrying the bedrock and laying a soil and fieldstone fill. The entrance to the courtyard house was discovered in a wall that bounded the courtyard to the southeast, and of which its dressed threshold stone was preserved together with two sockets (Fig. 6).
Sections of a white mosaic pavement and remains of the floor bedding were uncovered in the courtyard (15 × 15 m). Wall stumps from a later construction phase were also discovered (Stratum II, below). A rainwater drainage channel (width 0.20 m, depth 0.35 m) built in a southeast-northwest direction was also revealed. The channel led from the courtyard into the northwestern wing, where it was covered with stone slabs that were probably part of the flooring of the rooms in that wing. The water from the channel apparently drained into the cistern adjacent to the northwest of the building (below). Collapsed stones in the courtyard included a lintel bearing an engraved cross.
The southwest wing (5 × 10 m) was the grandest of the building’s wings and contained one rectangular room with an entrance leading from the courtyard; the entrance’s threshold stone was preserved, as were the stone socket and the door jamb. In the room, a multicolored mosaic floor decorated with typical Byzantine geometric motifs was uncovered (Fig. 7). The northwestern wing was trapezoidal in plan and divided into two rooms. One room was rectangular, and sections of flooring made of stone slabs were uncovered; the other room was trapezoidal. An entrance from the northeastern wing led to this wing. The northeastern wing itself was poorly preserved; it seems to have extended between the central courtyard and a wall built to the northeast.
It appears that during the construction of the southwestern and northwestern wings, the square room from Stratum IIIb was incorporated into them, whose alignment was different from that of the courtyard structure. In this phase, sections of a mosaic floor resembling the one in the southwestern wing were uncovered in the square room, suggesting that the floors are contemporary.
Complex Winepress (Figs. 3:c, 8). Near the courtyard’s northern corner was a rock-hewn winepress (17.5 sq m) with a round stone base for fixing a wooden pressing screw, a subsidiary treading floor on its northwestern side, and a square intermediate vat and collecting vat hewn to the northeast of the main floor. The two treading floors were separated by a stone-built wall. From the stone base in the main treading floor, a channel covered with stone slabs led to the intermediate vat (volume c. 0.3 cu m). A through-hole hewn from one side of the intermediate vat led to the collecting vat (volume c. 4 cu m). Both vats were plastered and the bottom of the collecting vat was paved with stone slabs; at the bottom of the floor of the collecting vat, a stone surface was placed to prevent wear to the floor from the flow of the must. A stone basin discovered at the bottom of the collecting vat served to collect the grape skins that sank to the floor.
Water cistern (diam. 6 m, excavated depth 4 m; Figs. 3:g, 9). A hewn and plastered cistern was discovered on the western slope of the hill, 17 m northwest of the courtyard house. The cistern’s mouth was round and its roof partially collapsed. The drainage channel uncovered in the courtyard probably channeled rainwater into this cistern. The cistern was filled with soil and was not excavated due to safety considerations.
Agricultural Terrace Wall (Fig. 3:h). Agricultural terrace walls were excavated northeast and west of the courtyard house. They were built of medium-sized fieldstones placed on their narrow edge and preserved to a maximum height of four courses (height c. 0.4 m). The walls seemingly enclosed a large plot of farmland on top of the hill, which may have been filled with soil for agricultural cultivation.
Caves (Fig. 3: d–f). Three rock-hewn caves were uncovered around the courtyard house. The plaster found in Cave f resembles the plaster found in the winepress and the caves were therefore probably first hewn and used in the Byzantine period. The caves were used as quarries and the raw material extracted from them may have been used to build the courtyard house. Alterations were made to the caves during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods (below).
Stratum II (Early Islamic period—eighth–ninth centuries CE)
During this period, the southwestern wing of the courtyard house was divided into two identically sized rooms by building a wall on top of the mosaic floor (Fig. 10). In the northwestern of the two rooms, the mosaic floor was removed. Each of the two rooms was divided into three small rooms that contained cooking ware and fragments of a tabun, suggesting that the rooms were used as kitchens. In the square room from Stratum IIIb (Fig. 3:a) two bases of pillars were built on top of the mosaic floor that may have supported a vault. The complex winepress was no longer used and its collecting vat was filled with soil and stones. During the ninth century CE, the site was abandoned.
Stratum I (Mamluk period—fourteenth–fifteenth centuries CE; late Ottoman period—nineteenth–early twentieth century CE)
At the beginning of the Mamluk period, the site was rebuilt, the occupants cleaned the caves and adapted them as dwellings using stones from the destroyed courtyard house in secondary use. The area of the former courtyard house was apparently used as farmland. The reuse of caves with secondary construction is known from other sites in the southern Hebron hills, such as at Horbat ‘Anim (Shmueli and Amit 2014). After some time, the caves were abandoned and they were only re-inhabited at the end of the Ottoman period. The assemblages in this stratum were mixed, and it was often difficult to separate the Mamluk finds from the Ottoman finds.
Cave d (7.2 × 7.6 m, height 2.3 m; Figs. 3:d, 11) was located on the hill’s southeastern slope. The cave had a round chamber divided into two spaces by a pillar hewn in the rock that supported the roof. The cave floor was leveled in the soft limestone. A threshold stone and two jambs made of ashlars were preserved at the cave entrance. The entrance led to a hewn passage and from there to the interior of the cave. An open yard hewn at the front of the cave was paved with crushed limestone. Rock-hewn cooking facilities and storage installations made of mud and straw were uncovered inside the cave.
To the east of the cave, a rectangular watchtower (Fig. 3:i) was discovered with walls built of two faces of fieldstones, and a wall of an agricultural terrace or livestock pen. Watchtowers and walls built near dwelling caves are well-known features of caves that continued to be occupied into modern times in the southern Hebron hills (Havakook Y. 1985: 35–36).
Cave e (Figs. 3e, 12). The cave had two entrances: a northern entrance led to a hewn passage containing seven steps, some cut in the rock and some built; a second entrance, westward from the yard, was flanked by preserved ashlar jambs in secondary use. The cave was divided into two spaces, a main chamber and a side chamber, by a pillar hewn in the rock to support the roof. The main chamber was elliptical (1.5 × 4.5 m, height 2.2 m) and its floor was hewn following the natural slope of the limestone bedrock. This may indicate that the cave was originally used as a quarry for stones used to build the Byzantine courtyard house. The cave walls were carelessly hewn and three small cavities carved in them were probably used for storage; agricultural tools were discovered in one of them. A courtyard quarried to the west of the cave contained a mixture of ash and a few potsherds. The northern part of the courtyard was built of bedrock lined with fieldstones placed on its narrow side, to prevent alluvial soil from being washed into the cave. A surrounding wall was built around the cave.
Cave f (Figs. 3:f, 13) was located just north of the courtyard house. At the entrance to the cave was a corridor, at the end of which were two steps built of ashlars. It seems that the floor of the cave was hewn anew during this phase; it is uneven and carelessly hewn. On top of it, a layer of soil and ash mixed with stones of various sizes was uncovered on which metal agricultural tools and pottery fragments from the late Ottoman period were discovered. The finds indicate that in the late nineteenth century CE, new occupants cleaned the cave floor and made it habitable, and also used the nearby agricultural terraces for farming.
The Finds
In the courtyard house of Stratum IIIa abundant pottery fragments from the fifth–eighth centuries CE were found, including bowls, basins with combed decoration, cooking pots, bag-shaped jars, Yassi Ada amphorae, and a sandal lamp. The pottery suggests that the building was probably abandoned at the end of the Byzantine period. Stone items from this stratum include a fragment of a lintel with a relief of a cross and a rosette and a marble vessel fragment. The courtyard house also yielded three coins: a coin from the fourth-fifth centuries CE (IAA 147390), an Umayyad fals (post-reform, al-Ramla mint; IAA 147389) and a coin from the end of the Ottoman period. The paucity of coins helps reinforce the evidence from the pottery finds, which show that the structure was apparently abandoned in an orderly manner at the end of the Byzantine period.
The pottery from the Umayyad and early Abbasid periods (Stratum II; eighth–ninth centuries CE) includes cooking pots, bag-shaped jars with incised decoration, flasks, cups and mold-made oil lamps decorated with vine tendrils. The same stratum also yielded a whole glass bottle of a type common in the Early Islamic period and several round flour-milling querns made of beach stone.
Stratum I contained mixed ceramic finds from the Mamluk and Ottoman periods (fourteenth–fifteenth centuries CE and nineteenth–twentieth centuries CE), including hand-made vessels decorated with brown painted geometric patterns and inscriptions in Arabic, Black Gaza Ware jars and tobacco pipes. Wooden items were also recovered, including a tobacco pipe and a bowl fragment. The caves yielded multiple metal tools, including plows, a cattle prod, axes, hoes and knives.
The earliest building discovered at the site had a square room that was built of ashlars in the Byzantine period when it probably served as a fortified tower. In the next phase of this period, a lavish courtyard house was built at the site, next to which was a complex winepress that attests to the site’s economic basis; a cistern was dug and caves were hewn; the entire compound was surrounded by a farm plot. The earlier building was incorporated into the courtyard house. The floor of the courtyard house was paved with multicolored mosaics that attest to the high economic status of the site’s residents. The cave near the winepress may have been used to store jars of the wine produced in the winepress. The lintel fragment with the cross relief and the mosaic decorated with crosses found in one of the courtyard-house rooms show that the inhabitants were Christians. Similar courtyard houses with a tower are known from the Byzantine period in Israel; they ensured security in the region and symbolized social stability (Hirschfeld 2007:122). The site may have functioned as a monastery that had a prayer room decorated with crosses, a tower, a winepress and farmland. At the end of the seventh–early eighth century CE, the site was abandoned.
During the Umayyad period (eighth century CE), new settlers arrived who were probably Muslim. The abandoned courtyard house was reoccupied as a residential dwelling. In the ninth century CE, the site was once again abandoned and only reoccupied in the Mamluk period (fourteenth–fifteenth centuries CE), when the caves were adapted as dwellings and subsequently abandoned. Four centuries later, at the end of the Ottoman period (nineteenth–early twentieth centuries CE), the site was resettled, probably by tenant farmers from the southern Hebron hills where there is a tradition of cave-dwelling (Havakook 1985:55–56). The caves contained a few rock-hewn facilities that were probably used for cooking and mud-brick storage installations. The cave dwellers apparently refurbished the agricultural terraces, built watchtowers, and farmed the plots of land. The dozens of agricultural implements found at the site show that its inhabitants practiced farming.